Food labelling - what you need to know

Public concern about the amount of sugar, fat and salt in our food has led to an increased interest in how pre-packaged food is labelled. But what do the labels mean and how can they help us to choose the foods that are good for us?

Why are food labels needed?

Food labels help us to understand what is in our food. Sometimes a food, such as flapjack, may indicate it is full of nutritious ingredients like nuts and whole grains cereals but hidden in the mix can be high amounts of sugar and fat which can have a negative effect on our health. Food labels help us to choose between products and decide how much is wise to eat.

What do food labels tell us?

Food labels are also called nutrition labels and they are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging. They show us how many calories and how much fat, sugar, protein and salt are inside the food we buy. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

The amount of energy, sugar, fat and salt we eat is linked to the most common forms of ill health in our society like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Food labels can help us to keep track of what we are eating.

Traffic light labels

Supermarkets and food manufacturers also provide traffic light, or colour coded labels for salt, sugar and fat contained in food.

The traffic light labels use red, amber and green colour coding. This warns us about the levels of fat, sugar and salt in food so we can make healthy choices when we are shopping and eating. When it comes to reading food labels, a good rule of thumb is to go for more greens and ambers, and cut down on reds.

Can food labels tell you if a food is high or low in fat, salt and sugar?

All food labels will give you the amount of fat, sugar and salt per 100g


Food that contains more than 17.5g of fat per 100g is classed as high in fat.
Food that contains less than 3g of fat or less per 100g is classed as low in fat.


Food that contains more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g is classed as high in sugar. 
Food that contains 5g of total sugars or less per 100g is classed as low in sugar.


Food that contain more than 1.5g of salt per 100g is classed as high in salt.
Food that contain 0.3g of salt or less per 100g is classed as low in salt.

Some front-of-pack nutrition labels also provide information about reference intakes.

What are reference intakes?

Nutrition labels can also provide information on how a food or drink product fits into your daily recommended diet.

Reference intakes are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet.

For example, if you look on the nutrition label of Oat Drink you will see it contains 15% of an adult’s daily requirement of vitamin D.

What are ingredients lists?

Most pre-packaged food products have a list of ingredients on the packaging. The ingredients can help you work out how healthy a product is. The ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always comes first. That means if the first few ingredients are high in fat such as cream, butter or oil, then the food will be a high fat food and you may want to think twice about eating very much of it.

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